x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Delays clog the system as aircraft proliferate across China

Building Brics: One of the challenges facing the rise of the budget carrier market is dealing with China's increasingly crowded skies.

Fewer than one in five flights left on schedule at Beijing's main airport, the world's second busiest, in July. David Gray / Reuters
Fewer than one in five flights left on schedule at Beijing's main airport, the world's second busiest, in July. David Gray / Reuters

One of the challenges facing the rise of the budget carrier market is dealing with China's increasingly crowded skies.

The country is expected to have 4,200 commercial aircraft in 2020, compared with the current fleet size of 2,001 with 46 airlines. That will make for busy airspace.

Nearly 680,000 people flew every day in China in 2010, fewer than the 1.7 million who took to the air in the United States, but the rate of growth in China is much faster.

China's airports often feel like the worst in the world when it comes to delays and cancellations and recent data from industry research group FlightStats shows the facts bear out this impression.

Beijing's main airport, which is the world's second-busiest, had the lowest ranking for on-time departures in July with fewer than one in five flights leaving on schedule as military controls of airspace and an expanding fleet add to congestion.

And the country's financial capital, Shanghai, had the second-worst among the 35 busiest international airports in June, according to the FlightStats rankings.

Compare this to the best performer, Tokyo's Haneda airport, where 95 per cent of flights left on time, followed by the Japanese capital's Narita airport. Just 18 per cent of 22,019 flights departing from Beijing Capital International Airport were on time, while Shanghai Pudong International airport had a rate of about 29 per cent, FlightStats said. A delay is marked if an aircraft fails to take off within 15 minutes of the scheduled gate time.

However, more than 42 per cent of flights at Beijing airports experienced excessive delays, which means flights arrive at the gate or depart 45 minutes or more after the scheduled time, the report said. The flag carrier Air China came in sixth from the bottom of the rankings, with just 54.58 per cent of its flights arriving on schedule. Air China, China Eastern and other airlines have seen their fleets expand hugely as rising incomes translate into more people flying and China's commercial aircraft fleet is projected to double in the next seven years.

According to the civil aviation administration of China, the on-time performance rate of China's airlines was about 74 per cent last year. In the US, 82 per cent of the flights arrived on time last year, according to the US bureau of transportation statistics.

Of 35 facilities ranked in the report, Amsterdam airport came third, with an on-time rate of 84 per cent, while John F Kennedy International Airport in New York was 26th with 66 per cent. London Heathrow was ranked 21st with a rate of 72 per cent. There were some surprises among the figures. Hong Kong International Airport came in 29th, with 64 per cent of flights out of the 12,417 departing on time - clearly feeling the impact of increased traffic with the mainland. Singapore Changi Airport ranked 10th, with a 78 per cent of on-time performance.

To use empirical evidence - three flights I have taken recently, to Beijing from Shanghai (twice) and Chengdu, were all delayed by more than three hours. One flight from Shanghai was delayed by six hours, while another, to Wuhan, was delayed longer, and the passengers waiting started to chant slogans about wanting to go home.

In recent months, passengers have done more than just chant and there has been a sharp rise in the number of "air-rage" incidents - in Chinese known as kong nu zu or "angry people in the sky".

In February, the senior Communist Party official Yan Linkun furiously trashed a boarding gate, while at Baiyun airport in Guangzhou, two passengers beat up a member of staff over a delay to a flight to Melbourne.

The question of what role military air traffic plays in all this is open to debate. China's air force controls the country's airspace and civil aviation uses about a fifth of available routes of the country's total airspace.

Compare this with the US, where military restrictions have far less impact because civil aviation controls the vast majority of airspace and airways tend to be located in desert regions or over oceans, far away from the busy airport hubs in cities such as New York and Los Angeles.

With China's three biggest airlines planning to add a total of at least 273 planes in the next three years, on top of the plans the budget carriers have for expansion, traffic congestion certainly looks set to worsen.

"At present, the limited airspace resource has restricted the development of civil aviation," Li Jiaxiang, the head of civil aviation administration, said in Beijing in May.

"We will strive to further open up the airspace."

The state-owned plane maker Aviation Industry Corporation of China has said with a sharp increase expected in the number of passenger jets in the country in the years to come, the little available airspace will fall short of the actual demand.

However, the military insists it is not the problem. Sources from within the People's Liberation Army have indicated in recent months air force activity was responsible for at most 7 per cent of civil aircraft delays.

By far the biggest cause of flight delays, at 42 per cent, is the management and operation of air carriers, the sources said. This is followed by air traffic control, which results in 26 per cent of delays, and weather, which claims 21 per cent.

It seems until that is controlled, and who knows when technology might enable it, there will be plenty more angry people in the skies over China.